Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Seven Words from the Cross, Part VI - It is finished (John 19:30)

We are nearing the end of our series on the seven words from the cross. Both last week's word ("I am thirsty") and this week's word ("It is finished") are from John's gospel and are intertwined in his narrative. We have followed the traditional ordering by treating them separately, but in their original literary context they go together as Jesus' final verbal act. I mention this because our reflection on this week's word deepens and develops themes from last week.

I'd like to reflect on this word from the cross by sketching some possible answers to two questions. But first, a preliminary comment.

Preliminary Comment: The Threefold Teleioo

John 19:30 is not the first appearance of the word "finished" (Grk: tetelestai) during John's passion narrative. In the preceding verses it appears not once but two times. First of all, Jesus is said to know "all had been accomplished (tetelestai)." Then, Jesus speaks in order to "complete (teleiothe) the Scriptures," which is an odd because the usual phrase is "fulfill (plerooma) the Scriptures." I do not want to dwell on these other two instance, except to note that a form teleioo appears three times in 19:28-30 as a unit. So it is clearly the emphasis of this passage.

Now on to my questions, both of which I think are crucial to a theological reflection on this word from the cross. I'm not sure which one is better to start with, because the answer to one affects the answer to the other. So I'll just begin with one arbitrarily.

Question 1: What is the referent of "it"?

What exactly is being finished? It is grammatically unclear. Is it simply that Jesus is about to die, quite obviously an "end" of some kind? Or is something else coming to completion? Is it just that the scriptures are now completed via Jesus' drinking of the vinegary wine? Or is it that his whole suffering has now reached its completion? If so, what exactly was being achieved in his suffering? If his suffering is not just something that happened to him, but something was accomplished in it, what is that something? Was it "drinking the cup of the Father" (whatever that means)? Was it being sacrificed as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world? Was it the whole of Jesus' mission? Was it some or all of these things? How do we decide, both exegetically and theologically?

Question 2: What is the sense of "finished"?

What does it mean for "it" to be "finished? As already evident in the mention of previous appearances of teleioo in this passage, the term has a wide range of meaning. It can mean finished, done, perfected, completed, accomplished, fulfilled, achieved, expired, performed, carried, etc. So it could just mean that this chapter has come to a close. But when matched with more some of the more loaded options concerning the reference of "it," you get talk of the "finished work of the cross." But what does this mean? Does this mean accomplished as an exclusively past tense event? Or does it mean perfected as something with ongoing effects? The sense given to finished will have significant consequences for how the death of Christ is understood soteriologically.

Well, those are some questions and some options for answering them. I have some inclinations, but right now I am just trying to map out the options. I'd love to hear what you think.

Any thoughts?


Angie Van De Merwe said...

It is finished, meaning there came a point of commitment as it regarded Jesus and the possible costs of his mission. He had counted the cost (no one else did this for him) and he struggled to surrender to the risk of "loosing his life" to that cause. I don't know if he knew all that would transpire, as it regarded his death, but he became willing to die if necessary... becoming willing to do what he had to do was the highest development in regards to God's image within him. He had come to understand fully his passion and knew that his giving his life was for the purpose of fulfilling a mission to and for others. He had been "perfected" in that he gave the ultimate in his commitment, his physical life. This call was spiritualized by the evangelist, John. But, any human reaching "full potentiality" will see the need, feel the passion, struggle with the costs, and make a decision.

Bob MacDonald said...

It would be interesting to examine the reception history of this verse - e.g. T.S.Eliot Journey of the Magi - it was, you may say, satisfactory, or even the Anglican Prayer book, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.

The first aspect of this history would be the reception within the earliest NT communities. Is this what is being referred to in Hebrews with its description of the abrogating of the cultic practice of the temple?

For me personally, this completion as 'end' sums up my first response to John's Gospel in my early fear about 35 years ago - John 5:24 - passed from death to life and will not come into judgment. I would not 'explain' it quite the same way today but I have not been disappointed. I see it also as confirming that he is my bridegroom of blood. But here I leap too far too fast I am sure.